To say that 2015-2016 hasn’t gone as planned for the Tampa Bay Lightning would be an understatement. They went to the Stanley Cup Final last year, returned almost everyone on their roster except for Brenden Morrow–who they replaced with a better forward in Erik Condra–and were expected to roll over the opposition yet again en route to a finish atop the Eastern Conference standings.
After 41 games, the Lightning sit at sixth in the Atlantic Division with a 19-17-4 record. Steven Stamkos is struggling, the “Triplets” haven’t been going, the defense doesn’t look as great as it did in 2014-2015 and injuries have done their dirty work on the roster.
Thankfully the playoffs are well within striking distance. The Lightning are just one point away from the second Wild Card spot, and have played one less game than the team that currently occupies it. Still, Tampa Bay is struggling mightily and will need to improve over the second half just to have a shot at the postseason, let alone a chance at returning to the dominant team they were in 2014-2015.
Here’s a look at what’s been good, what’s been bad and what we can expect from the Lightning in 2016.
Tampa Bay is still one of the league’s best 5 on 5 teams
Last year the Tampa Bay Lightning finished second in the NHL with a 53.9 percent Corsi For percentage at even strength. Their dominance of the neutral zone was truly a treat to watch. The Lightning would create turnovers with speed and awareness, and then use that same speed to go on the attack and force the opposition to defend wave after wave of fast, skilled forwards.
The team isn’t as dominant now, but they are still controlling play and are sporting a 51.9 percent Corsi For percentage–good for ninth in the league. It’s not quite the same relentless attack that terrified opponents last year, but it’s still effective and has the Lightning outscoring the opposition at 5 on 5.
Seeing as power plays have been declining over the past couple of seasons, and so much of the game is played at even strength, out-chancing (and out-scoring) opponents is integral to winning hockey games. The Lightning have done just that this season.
Ben Bishop is putting together another solid season
Perhaps one of the more underrated moves Steve Yzerman has made in his tenure as Tampa Bay’s general manager is the trade he made with the Ottawa Senators at the 2013 trade deadline. The Lightning were struggling that season and were looking to improve for the future. Yzerman sent away Cory Conacher and a fourth-round draft pick in exchange for Ben Bishop.
At the time, it looked like Yzerman had paid a steep price for Bishop, as Conacher was 23 and second in NHL rookie scoring with 24 points (9G 15A) in 35 games. Bishop, on the other hand, had been Craig Anderson’s backup and posted a .922 save percentage in 13 games that year.
Conacher would play in 72 games for the Senators over the next two seasons, scoring only 25 points before being traded. After some AHL time, he moved overseas and is currently playing with SC Bern of the NLA. Bishop, on the other hand, has posted an above average .921 save percentage in his three seasons with the Lightning and is playing stellar for the team again this year.
Among goaltenders who have played at least 20 games this season, Bishop ranks third with an adjusted save percentage of .927 in all situations. Despite the rest of the team struggling, Bishop has been solid, and is a big reason why the Lightning are still within striking distance of a playoff spot.
The depth has kept the team from cratering
The injury bug bit the Tampa Bay Lightning hard in 2015-2016, and Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Jonathan Drouin, Cedric Paquette and Brian Boyle have all missed time due to injury. The Lightning are fourth in the league with 154 man-games lost (as of January 6), and are just now starting to function at 100 percent.
The organizational depth has saved the team from being terrible this season, as Jonathan Marchessault, Mike Blunden, Mike Angelidis, Yanni Gourde, Joel Vermin, Luke Witkowski, Matt Taormina, Tye McGinn and Slater Koekkoek have all seen NHL time this year.
Marchessault in particular has performed admirably, picking up 11 points in 23 games and holding his own in a bottom-six role.
Tampa Bay's third and fourth lines this year have been a revolving door of AHL players (injuries are bad) pic.twitter.com/Zv8W2qLjjC
— Shane O'Donnell (@shane1342o) January 8, 2016
Without decent play from all of the AHL call-ups, the Lightning could be much, much lower in the standings.
The top players haven’t been producing
Stamkos is having a strange season, and is on pace to have his lowest goal and point totals since his rookie season. Ignoring all the rumors and media coverage surrounding the center’s upcoming free agency, it’s never good for a team to have a player average 40 goals and 80 points a season, then suddenly drop off and only be on pace for 35 goals and 60 points.
There are plenty of theories that try to explain the decline in Stamkos’ play, and it’s likely he’ll return to being one of the league’s best goal scorer at some point, but the Lightning have to be hoping that their captain starts lighting the lamp sooner, rather than later.
Beyond Stamkos, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat haven’t been putting pucks in the net either. After both hit the 60-point mark last season, both are averaging less than half a point per game– or less than 40 points over the course of a full season. That sharp decline is hurting the Lightning just as much as Stamkos’ lack of production.
Age has caught up to some defensemen
Bringing back almost all of the rostered players from the previous season can be both a good and a bad thing. The good is that if the team was strong last year, they’ll probably be good again this year. The bad thing is that older players age and usually decline.
Tampa Bay’s defense consists of plenty of “older” defensemen, with Braydon Coburn, Jason Garrison and Matt Carle all being age 30 or above. Seeing as NHL defensemen really start to decline around age 30, the trio is right around the age where we start to see players slip, as their legs lose a step and they just quite aren’t able to keep up with the speed and pace that the game is played at anymore.
Braydon Coburn and Jason Garrison–who never really depended on skating ability to be successful–haven’t been hit by Father Time just yet, but Matt Carle has. In fact, Carle wasn’t just hit. Father Time ran him over with a bus.
In almost 500 minutes at 5 on 5 this season, the 31-year-old blue liner has a 45.4 percent Corsi For percentage, and a -9.8 relative Corsi For rating. The Lightning essentially get a 10 percent greater share of the shot attempts with Carle off the ice than they do with him on the ice.
He’s clearly the weakest link on an otherwise strong blue line, and finding a replacement player should be high on Yzerman’s
“To Do” list.
The special teams have been average
When a team has Stamkos, Kucherov, Johnson, Palat, Hedman, Anton Stralman, and a plethora of other skilled skaters to work with, they really should be converting on more than 19.1 percent of their chances (14th in the league). There are plenty of problems with the current system, but the biggest is that the power play just doesn’t get many shots towards the net. They have the league’s lowest Fenwick For per 60 minutes of power play time.
The penalty kill isn’t much better, and ranks 19th in the league with a 79.7 percent success rate. In the same way that the power play fails to generate shots, the penalty kill bleeds shots, and has the league’s second highest Fenwick Against per 60 minutes of power play time.
Most of the game is played at 5 on 5, but special teams still play an important role. Tampa’s haven’t been good this year, and it’s cost the team a fair number of games.
What to expect from the second half of the season
Let’s recap what we know about the Lightning. They’ve essentially played with half of an AHL roster for most of the season due to injuries and have still managed to be one of the league’s better team at 5 on 5. The special teams haven’t been good, but they haven’t been bad either, and Bishop is putting together another solid season.
There are a lot more positives than negatives around this team right now, especially when it comes to their potential over the second half of the season. If everyone stays healthy, Bishop keeps playing well, and the special teams improve (even a little), there really is no reason that the Lightning shouldn’t be able at least sneak into a Wild Card spot.
Even now, they’ve been playing at a playoff caliber. In all situations, they have the seventh highest goal differential in the Eastern Conference, and probably should be in one of the Wild Card spots, instead of on the outside looking in.
The Lightning are still a good hockey team. They might need to upgrade their defense if they want to return to the level of dominance they had last season, but overall, there are plenty of signs that point to them being a team capable of making a run in the second half of the season and finishing as one of the best teams in the East.
(All statistics taken from war-on-ice.com and are 5 v 5 score adjusted unless mentioned otherwise).